Friday 14 June 2013

The wrong conclusion from the Morrissey inquiry

In the 24 hours since the publication of the Morrissey inquiry report, an alarming trend has developed: an expectation of a ‘command and control’ system of party governance in the Liberal Democrats.

On the Daily Telegraph’s blog, Channel 4’s Cathy Newman (who first broke the story of the Rennard allegations) demanded to know why no heads had rolled, which seemed to assume that one person was ultimately responsible and it was simply a matter of deciding who.

On the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog, Melissa Kite made various false and sweeping assumptions about the party, one of which was that change could simply be imposed from the top.

Meanwhile on Liberal Democrat Voice, Stephen Tall quoted approvingly from Morrissey’s citation of the Bones Commission, whose managerialist conclusions assumed that the party could and should be restructured like a business organisation.

The Morrissey report itself included a diagram depicting the internal power structure of the party, which looks like a complicated wiring diagram. This has enabled some people to hold the party up to ridicule for its ‘byzantine’ and ‘labyrinth’ organisation.

The party’s organisation is by no means perfect and is capable of being illogical or unstrategic. However, we need to be clear about certain fundamental and enduring principles:
  • The party is democratic – it belongs to its members, who exercise sovereign power.
  • The party is federal – power is exercised at the lowest practicable level.
  • The party is a voluntary movement – most of the work is done by unpaid volunteers, not employees.
Is this an excuse for sexism or any other form of discrimination? Of course not. The party has a moral obligation to act in an exemplary fashion, no matter how power is exercised.

But we need to be on our guard against anyone who attempts to exploit Morrissey to justify diminishing party democracy. Since the days of Jeremy Thorpe, successive leaders’ hangers-on have argued for centralising power on the spurious grounds of ‘professionalism’ or ‘modernisation’. You can bet they will seize on Morrissey’s criticisms to do so again.

The point of Liberalism is to enable people to exercise meaningful power over their own lives and to influence the world around them. Morrissey should reinforce this principle; ‘people’ means everyone, irrespective of gender or ethnicity or social class. Morrissey should not be used to override this principle; the existence of discrimination does not justify throwing party democracy out of the window.

The point of the Morrissey report is to tackle discrimination, and that should be the focus of the party’s response. On Liberal Democrat Voice today, Caron Lindsay correctly argues that implementation of Morrissey’s recommendations should not mean a power grab from the centre. Nothing in the Morrissey report calls for centralisation, and we should treat with suspicion anyone who suggests that it does.

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